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Afghanistan (Force Levels)

Volume 457: debated on Monday 26 February 2007

On 1 February, I announced the forthcoming rotation of our troops in Afghanistan. At that time, I undertook, once I had spoken with my fellow NATO Defence Ministers at Seville, to update the House on any further changes to our force structure. That is what I am here to do today.

I want begin by highlighting the progress and achievements in Afghanistan during 2006. NATO has continued its expansion of responsibility for this vital campaign into the more challenging south and east of the country. We have faced down the Taliban in their own back yard, delivering security and bringing the reach of the Afghan Government to places that have hardly seen it before. We have unified the military mission under the leadership of General Richards and the British-led allied rapid reaction corps. Across Afghanistan, we have built schools, mosques, roads, wells and markets. We have defended and reinforced five years of progress, including the first elections in decades, remarkable improvements in education, and the return of 5 million refugees.

I say this because, before we talk about what more we must do, we should understand what is at risk if we do not continue to live up to the collective commitment we have made to Afghanistan and its people. I am not here to herald this as a job done. I am not painting a glossy picture; our mission in Afghanistan faces serious challenges and the country faces serious problems. But I am here to explain why we must keep working to meet these challenges and to secure Afghanistan’s future.

I have said many times from this Dispatch Box that there is no purely military solution to Afghanistan’s problems. What military forces can do, as has been shown right across the country, is increase security. But unless we can help the Afghan Government to bring security to all their people, and convince them that they and NATO are going to defeat the Taliban and others who try to block or destroy progress, everything else that we have achieved in Afghanistan will remain at risk.

At Seville, NATO’s senior military commander— the Supreme Allied Commander Europe—reminded NATO members that it is in the south and east that the security challenge is most acute. He identified a further need for robust, flexible, manoeuvrable combat forces to strengthen NATO commanders’ ability to tackle the challenge across those regions.

We believe that every NATO partner should be prepared to do more to meet that need. At Seville, some announced that they would do so. America promised an additional 3,000 troops. France has offered more close air support. Germany has pledged six reconnaissance Tornadoes. Lithuania has pledged additional troops. All those contributions are welcome. They build on earlier commitments made at Riga in the autumn, principally by Poland, which committed a battalion to the east, but we must be realistic about how many nations have the ability to take on the tasks facing NATO in the south and the east.

I have lobbied our partners consistently for more help in those regions and I will continue to do so, but it is increasingly clear that at present, when it comes to the most demanding tasks in the more challenging parts of Afghanistan, only we and a small number of key allies are prepared to step forward. That is why we have decided to commit additional forces to Afghanistan. Put simply, the alternative is unacceptable—it would place too great a risk on the progress we have made so far. That is a risk we simply cannot afford to take, for the sake of Afghanistan and of our own security. We may be shouldering a greater share of the burden than we might like, but so are others, and we do so in the knowledge that this is a vital mission and one that is directly in our national interest.

I turn now to the details of what this decision means in practice. The UK has decided to fill one of SACEUR’s most pressing requirements—a manoeuvre battalion for Regional Command (South), which is an area that covers Helmand—the base and responsibility of the existing UK taskforce—but also the strategically vital neighbouring provinces of Kandahar, Oruzgan, Zabul, Nimruz and Daykondi.

We propose to deploy a battlegroup comprising elements of an infantry battalion, the 1st Battalion, the Royal Welsh, which will be augmented with a company of Warrior infantry fighting vehicles from the 1st Battalion, the Scots Guards. It will include additional artillery, including a regimental HQ and a battery of light guns from the 19th Regiment, Royal Artillery; a brigade surveillance group drawn from the 5th Regiment, Royal Artillery; and a troop of guided multiple launch rocket systems from the 39th Regiment, Royal Artillery.

We shall also deploy additional reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, four more Harrier GR9s to provide close air support, four Sea King helicopters from 846 Naval Air Squadron to increase our support helicopter capacity, and another C-130 Hercules. Some of the forces deployed will be reservists, although I am not yet in a position to inform the House of how many. I will write to confirm that.

In terms of overall numbers, that adds up to nearly 1,400 additional personnel. Some will deploy from the roulement in May, but the majority will deploy over the summer. They will be based mostly in Helmand, with some at Kandahar airfield, although they will provide NATO commanders in RC (South) with a flexible capability for use across the southern region. In total, our forces in Afghanistan will increase from around 6,300 to settle at about 7,700 personnel. The current planning assumption remains that those forces are committed until 2009.

I am well aware of the pressure that this will continue to put our armed forces under. I have made it clear in the past that this Government fully recognise how much we are asking of them. I want to take this opportunity to say again on behalf of the Government how much we admire the professionalism, skill and bravery with which they do the hard and dangerous work that we ask of them. I repeat that ensuring that they have the support and equipment that they need remains my highest priority, but I also want to make it clear that we would not make this decision to commit extra forces unless it was in accordance with unequivocal military advice. I and the chiefs of staff agree that this additional commitment is manageable.

Before closing, I want to address some misconceptions about this decision which have circulated over recent days. The first is that our recent decisions on Iraq were driven by our desire to do more in Afghanistan. That gets things the wrong way round. Our planned draw-down in Iraq, announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week, is driven by the conditions on the ground. It is the situation in Iraq that determines what we do there, not the situation in Afghanistan, but of course our plans for Iraq and for other operational theatres, including the Balkans, affect our ability to do more in support of NATO in Afghanistan. In that context, our decision last week on Iraq makes today’s decision that much easier.

The second misconception is that the enhancement reflects poor planning in the first place. That is simply not true. As a general point, it is wrong to suggest that any enhancement must reflect poor planning. Inevitably, much is learned during a deployment, especially in the early stages, and the force structure should adapt. That was reflected in the enhancements that we announced last July and in some aspects of the roulement announced on 1 February.

It is however a straightforward error to interpret today’s decision as implying anything about the adequacy of the Helmand taskforce. That force is clearly up to the job; it overmatched the Taliban in every engagement last summer, and during the winter it has been able to take the fight to the Taliban on our terms, while securing the area around the provincial capital and vital reconstruction projects such as the Kajaki dam.

Today’s decision is a commitment to the southern region as a whole. The additional forces will meet NATO’s requirement for troops who can work across the region, in Kandahar and elsewhere. They provide commanders with greater flexibility and greater capacity to support the Afghan military while they develop the skills and confidence to do the vital work for themselves. As I have said before, that remains our long-term exit strategy.

In announcing this significant additional commitment, I assure the House that my resolve to secure contributions from others remains undiminished. However, I put it to the House that we must protect the progress that we have made so far, and protect the Afghans’ own hope and determination. That is the Government's intention. We believe in this mission; we believe in the international community’s aims in Afghanistan and are proud to play our full part in achieving them.

I begin by thanking the Secretary of State for his statement and prior notice of it.

Yet again, it is to be greatly regretted that we read about the announcement of extra British troop deployments in the press at the weekend before hearing it in the House of Commons. I fully accept Ministers’ assurances that they did not intend the information to come out; on this occasion, incompetence is probably preferable to contempt of the House.

The Conservative party has always fully supported the aims of the Afghan mission, and the Secretary of State has frequently been generous in accepting and acknowledging that. We believe that it is essential that we be successful in Afghanistan for the future of global security, the future of NATO and the future of the Afghan people themselves.

Those of us who have visited Afghanistan have marvelled at the courage and commitment, in the most difficult circumstances, of our armed forces. If our commanders in the field tell us that they need more troops to make the mission successful, clearly those troops must be supplied.

A number of issues result from the Secretary of State’s statement, however. An extra 1,400 troops are being sent, equivalent to about 20 per cent. of the current total. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the extra equipment being sent will match that increase? In particular, does he believe that the increased number of helicopters and the requisite number of armoured vehicles will be made available sufficiently to provide fully for the security of the increased number of troops being sent?

What will it all mean for the harmony guidelines? It is welcome that troops are coming back from Iraq, but almost exactly the same number are going to Afghanistan. Already the increased tempo and the length of separation for families are causing a retention problem, particularly in the Army. The pressure of overstretch is bearing down hard on service families. What is being done and what will be done to help them in potentially worsening circumstances? Unhappy service families are a clear recipe for unhappy servicemen and women.

The Secretary of State was right to say that there cannot be a military solution alone in Afghanistan. Military success is dependent on political success. What is being done now to tackle the almost endemic problem of corruption in Afghanistan, including at the highest levels of the Government in Kabul? That corruption threatens to undermine the cohesion of the state of Afghanistan, and the acceptance of the authority of the Kabul Government. Corruption in the police makes progress especially difficult. Can he update the House on that problem, and tell us who is in charge of improving the situation?

Do the Government believe that the new troop deployment is likely to be the peak United Kingdom troop level? As the House well knows, previous rumours about extra troop deployments have almost always turned out to be true. Currently, it is rumoured that the Government are already considering a further increase in troop numbers later in the year. Is that correct?

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Secretary of State’s statement today related to NATO. He said:

“it is increasingly clear…when it comes to the most demanding tasks in the more challenging parts of Afghanistan, only we and a small number of key allies are prepared to step forward.”

That ought to give food for thought to those who want a bigger EU role in the defence of our country; it makes my blood run cold.

The cohesion and credibility of NATO is on the line in Afghanistan. Common security must mean common burden sharing. The number of caveats at present is unacceptable. For example, German forces are not able to operate at night or be involved in counter-narcotics operations, which is not acceptable in the longer term. At the Riga summit, all the major decisions—on the longer-term role of NATO, its decision-making structure and financing—were avoided. It is a scandal that only four NATO nations now contribute more than 2 per cent. of their GDP to defence.

The bottom line is that the United Kingdom, the United States, the Canadians and the Dutch—surprise, surprise—contribute by far the greatest to security in the southern and most dangerous part of Afghanistan. Of our 7,700 troops, 7,200 will be in Helmand—few, if any, other nations come close to that proportion. We are taking a disproportionate burden. UK taxpayers and the UK military are taking a much bigger share of the burden than we should in what is supposedly a communal operation. Our NATO partners need to recognise that if NATO is to exist and flourish in the future, that position is not tenable.

I, too, regret that the information leaked as it did. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) knows—as I spoke to him on Friday and expressed my regret—that in my view the leak was in the interests neither of the Government nor of the work that we were continuing to do in preparation for the announcement. To some degree, however, I am surprised that his words did not turn to dust in his mouth as he was saying them, because information that has been leaked to members of the Conservative party about things going on in my Department is repeatedly communicated to me at the Dispatch Box. I welcome the fact that he has committed himself to ensuring that that stops; I look forward to discussing with him how to do that, and how to ensure that members of his party do not encourage such leaking. Sometimes the information put into the public domain—he knows that I have expressed this view previously—reduces the security of our troops and operation, and is not in the interests of those troops whom some people affect to support.

The hon. Gentleman asked about equipment, and specifically helicopters. We are increasing both our helicopter and fixed-wing airlift with the increased force levels and tasks. On helicopters, we are deploying enhanced Sea Kings to fill the medical role, which will free up more Chinooks for the transport role. We judge that we have the necessary assets to meet the requirement, but we keep that under review. On all other equipment, including Warrior armoured vehicles, I am advised that the additional equipment is exactly what is needed to support the deployment.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we shall continue to operate at a high operational tempo for the foreseeable future. I am hopeful that, in at least one other theatre of operation, we shall, in the comparatively near future, be able to announce a draw-down of our troops and that, in the medium term, the pressure that those troops are under will diminish. That, however, will be a function of our ability to take forward that and other operations which I know he and his party support. We have to keep such matters under review, but it is not our intention to maintain the tempo beyond a point that is manageable for our troops.

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right to identify corruption as an important problem. I said in my statement that the support of the Afghan people for their Government and for our ability to deliver security is crucial, but it is also crucial that the Afghan people see that corruption is being challenged by the Government. Responsibility for seeing that through lies with President Karzai and we remind him of that on every occasion we engage with him. He has recently appointed an Attorney-General who has shown a specific commitment to that aspect of his work, and it is reported back to me that he is doing brave and good work.

On training for the police and the armed forces, the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that those of us in NATO who have responsibility for that training, and the Americans, focus continually on corruption, but I think that the problem would be better tackled if we started to draw some of those forces from the communities that they serve rather than continuing to do as we have done, which is draw them from other parts of Afghanistan and, to some degree, impose them on communities. Our ability to get people to behave appropriately in their community depends on the community accepting them and seeing them as coming from the community, rather than as imposed on the community.

The hon. Gentleman repeated in his own words the points that I made about the need for the burden to be shared across NATO. The House knows my view on caveats: they are restricting the commanders’ ability to deploy troops appropriately where they are needed across the whole Afghanistan theatre. The sooner people remove those caveats and allow their troops to be deployed where they are most needed, the better it will be for all of us.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend has considered this decision carefully, knowing the pressure that it will put on our forces. I believe that the decision is the right one, because it is important that we respond to the requests from our men on the ground and the chiefs and give our servicemen in Afghanistan every help and support they need in fighting the terrorism of the Taliban. However, will he take an early opportunity to engage in a bit of plain speaking with some of our European NATO partners? Their forces are deployed in Afghanistan to defeat terrorism, not to sit in their barracks and leave the fighting to us.

My right hon. Friend may well have been present at some of the conversations that I have had with some of our allies. I take every opportunity to make clear our view that the burdens and the risks should be shared across all of NATO, but the fact is that we have had a request from SACEUR. To respond to an earlier question, we were asked to provide two battlegroups for the south, but we had to balance our assessment of the need against our capacity and our belief that in the NATO mission others must also bear some of the extra burden. Our judgment, on balance and based on the advice of the chiefs, was that we should send one battlegroup and the force enhancements that I announced today and earlier this month.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I begin by reaffirming the Liberal Democrats’ support for our operation in Afghanistan.

I recognise the logic that has led to the extra deployment, although I share the frustration of others at the fact that other NATO members have not been able to pick up more of the burden. Will the Secretary of State keep up the pressure on NATO allies, given that the operation could prove to be quite a long haul?

How does today’s statement square with the Ministry’s commitment to end the situation in which we are operating beyond defence planning assumptions by the end of this year? Given the announcement last week of the beginning of the draw-down of troops from Iraq, will this statement not effectively undo that in one fell swoop? If we are to keep up the operation in Afghanistan over a period of years, is it not essential that we complete the draw-down from Iraq as quickly as possible, so that we do not continue operations on two fronts? The Secretary of State described the role that the four Sea Kings will play, but surely there will be a need for a great deal more than that. Has he made any progress in procuring further helicopter capacity?

As I said in answer to a question during Defence questions, we continue to press our allies, as appropriate and where they have the capability to deploy helicopters, to do so in a way that will support ISAF. Of course, helicopter lift is crucial to the campaign that we are involved in, as is all air lift. The hon. Gentleman, by a simple process of arithmetic, seems to relate these figures to those announced last week on Iraq, and he presses upon me the draw-down of our troops in Iraq. His party’s policy is that, no matter what the circumstances, we should withdraw from Iraq. I think that he understands the Government’s position—in my view, it is a more appropriate one—regarding our commitment to the Iraqi people, not to mention to the security of our own troops, which is that we will continue to look at our commitments in Iraq in relation to the conditions there. If we continue to make progress in improving the Iraqi security forces and their ability to serve the security of their own people, we can make progress—as I hope we will—in drawing down from there. However, troops are of course deployed in other theatres, and as I have said, and without wishing to be more specific than this, it is our hope that some time later this week we can announce a draw-down of troops from other theatres, which will relieve the pressure—to some small degree, I accept—on the operational tempo issue. However, it is not our intention over the medium term to be in the position that we are currently in. The situation is manageable, but I have conceded at the Dispatch Box that we cannot sustain it in the long term without doing damage to the core of our troops.

Apart from reinforcing troop numbers against the expected Taliban spring offensive in Helmand and around Kandahar, what is the precise mission objective of this newly enlarged force, what are the exact conditions that have to be met for that objective to be achieved, and within what time scale is it expected to be achieved?

The mission objective has not changed. It—combined with our exit strategy, which, as my right hon. Friend will be aware, is shared by at least 36 other countries and is in the context of the United Nations resolution—is to ensure that the Government of Afghanistan, elected by their own people, can deliver government, security and economic prosperity to those people. When we will achieve that I am not in position to say here, but I can tell my right hon. Friend that, as he knows, we have made significant progress in the north and west of the country toward that objective. However, given that it is one coherent country, if we do not make progress in the south and east, we will be unable to sustain the progress that we have made in the north and west. I am certain, given the fundamental logic of that, that he supports all such efforts. If so, he should ask himself whether he supports in the first place the mission to allow the people of Afghanistan to proceed toward that objective themselves, having lost 2 million of their own people in securing their freedom. If so, he should support today’s announcement, because it is manifestly the right thing to do in order to achieve that objective.

I support today’s announcement, but we have been asked to provide two battlegroups and we have said that we are providing only one, so does the Secretary of State have any idea where the other battlegroup will come from? Will the further deployment place additional pressure on the training schedule, which is what makes our troops so good?

In my statement to the House, I said, advisedly—I cannot find the exact words—that the deployment was being made on unequivocal military advice. Those are not just words. In preparation, and in responding to the request, having been encouraged to do so by the military, I tested that advice significantly and raised the issue of pressure on our troops, because that matter is at the forefront of my mind, as I have said repeatedly at the Dispatch Box. Until I was satisfied that the deployment was manageable in relation to the troops that we have available, I was not prepared to agree that we would do it, but I am satisfied that it is right.

There may well be a consequence for the training of some troops, because our operational tempo is higher than our planning assumptions set out. The question is whether that will damage our troops in the long term, and the advice I have is that if we are able to see it through and we do not sustain it over an extended period, we will be able to deal with the issue. However, I do not seek to present the position to the House as anything other than it is, and it would be entirely wrong of me to do so. The deployment generates a challenge in relation to training, which as a country and as a Government we need to be prepared to address in the near future.

Does my right hon. Friend never ask himself the question: what is the point of a NATO of that number of nations if it is not prepared to commit itself 100 per cent., without caveats, in a conflict such as that in Afghanistan? Is not it already the case that there are two types of NATO partner—those who are in it for the greater good and those who are in it for themselves?

I ask myself all sorts of questions but I cannot, with hand on heart, say that I have asked myself that question, or repeatedly asked it. However, I get my hon. Friend’s point. With one or two exceptions—there are perhaps two parties represented in the House that wish us to withdraw from NATO—there is support for the NATO alliance on both sides of the House. There is certainly support in the official Opposition, there is support on the Liberal Democrat Benches and there is support on our Benches. Why? Because that alliance, despite all the criticisms that we may make of it, has proved to be the most enduring and effective political and military alliance the world has ever seen.

NATO has never before been posed a challenge of this nature. Progress is being made. It is not being made, in my view, at the same pace as the challenges from the environment that we are dealing with are being generated, but progress is being made. I do not propose to talk about specific countries at the Dispatch Box, no matter how much I am encouraged to do so, but there are countries that have come a long way in a comparatively short period in terms of what they are able to do and what they are prepared politically to allow their troops to do.

We need to consider another issue. There was evidence of that last week. The Italian Government fell because of, among other things, their commitment to Afghanistan. They may well stand up again and may be able to deal with that. In my view, they will be able to do so, but they fell and we have to recognise that when troops are deployed in such circumstances, they are subject to political developments in other countries and the rhythm of their elections. That is one of the challenges that we need to learn to recognise in these alliances, but at the end of the day I support NATO and I will continue to support and challenge the members of NATO not to be an alliance in which the burden is not shared appropriately. However, there is no alternative, in my view, to NATO and it has proved to be the most enduring and effective political and military alliance that the world has ever seen.

To ask a question that is repeatedly asked each time we get an admission of mission creep, why are we yet again sending a small and under-supported contingent of our finest young men to risk their lives in a war in Afghanistan that even a NATO army of 100,000 could not permanently win, as the Russian commitment of 300,000 troops in the 1980s clearly demonstrated? To reverse Fouché’s aphorism, it is worse than a folly; it is a crime.

The hon. Gentleman has the merit of consistency and he speaks regularly on this issue and challenges me in exactly the same way. I respond to him, I hope, consistently by saying that there is no comparison between what we—the world, by and large—are seeking to do in Afghanistan and what the Soviets tried to do when they invaded and took on the whole country. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman knows this, but the evidence not only from polling—whatever fragility that has—but from our troops on the ground and from our communication with the Afghan people suggests that the vast majority of the Afghan people want us to be there. They are subject in parts of Afghanistan to the most horrific violence perpetrated by a comparatively small number of people who have been practising it on them for decades. I say to the hon. Gentleman that there is significant evidence of progress and he cannot deny that. Some 5 million people who have connections with that community have gone back to live there since the world released the country from the terror of the Taliban. Those 5 million people cannot be wrong; there must be some reason for them to believe that they were going back to an improved set of circumstances.

Of course, there are difficulties and challenges, but I spoke today to our commander on the ground and he gave me—I will repeat it to the House if it wants me to—a litany that went on for about five minutes of the progress that has been made just over the winter. He was very keen that I should make the point in the House that the ability of the Taliban has been overestimated, because they appear to be much more successful in their information operations than we and NATO have been. In his view, the Taliban in Helmand province are becoming increasingly desperate about their ability to engage with and overcome our troops. That may not continue, but there is, in his view, no sign of the expected spring offensive. That does not mean that it may not develop.

We need to be ready for the worst possible assessment so that we are able to deal with and match the Taliban, as we have been able to do. At the same time, however, we need to bring development and economic prosperity to the people, so that they can in the long term face down the Taliban. We are making progress on that; it is not the same challenge that the Soviets took on.

I am concerned that those nations who are prepared to put their servicemen and women in the most dangerous situations could find support within their home communities undermined by the failure of NATO allies to get involved. Could my right hon. Friend give an assessment of how robust and for how long the existing support will continue? If there is not support for the commitment across the alliance, there is a danger that, country by country, those that are pulling their weight now may find that their Governments no longer have the support of their populations.

My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. The Taliban seek to do two things. The first is to undermine the faith of the Afghan people in the international security assistance force and the ability of their own troops to deliver security for them. Equally, the Taliban seek to undermine support in the countries that support the Afghan Government. By explaining what is actually going on and explaining in an honest and straightforward way the challenges and difficulties that we face, I hope to continue the support of the British people for what I consider to be a noble cause and, more important, an absolute necessity for our security.

Today’s statement confirms the point that I put to the Prime Minister back in October: the majority of EU and NATO countries are refusing to deploy their troops to Helmand province. Does the Secretary of State agree that, if those countries are refusing to help to rid the world of terrorism and are adding to the overstretch of the British armed forces, they should at least fund the operations that we are putting forward?

Where countries are unable, as some of them are, to provide troops that can engage in the sort of tasks that are needed in Helmand province, or where they are unwilling to do so, we suggest that they ought to find some other way of supporting the challenge that needs to be supported. That said, almost all the countries have already committed themselves, through the Afghan compact, to making contributions to the development of Afghanistan. I would not want it to be thought that I said that they were not providing money to support the Afghan Government, because most of them are.

I think that my right hon. Friend will have the full support of the House in pressing our allies in Europe and elsewhere into supporting the intervention and the effort in Afghanistan, but does he share some of my concern that if many of those nations were going to make a bigger contribution, they would already have done so? Taking his earlier point that there is no military solution, alone, to this issue, does he agree that there needs to be a rethink politically if we find that militarily we are not getting the necessary reinforcement? Does he accept that there is nothing worse that being bogged down in something over which one has little control and which one cannot win?

If I did not think that we could make progress in increasing security to allow the complementary elements of the appropriate comprehensive approach, which will deliver exactly what we are looking for in Afghanistan, I would not commit one further member of the British armed forces, or supporting civilians from other departments, to Afghanistan. On the contrary, I would argue for the withdrawal of our troops. I believe that we can make progress. We might not be able to make it at the pace that, ideally, we would be able to make it at if we had access to more troops, but we will be able to make progress. It is necessary for us to reinforce the progress that we have already made and to move on to the next stage, by doing what I am announcing today.

Provincial reconstruction teams remain the cornerstone of our progress in Afghanistan. In today’s statement it is significant that, for the first time, our troops will be operating in two provinces—Nimruz to the west of Helmand and Daykondi to the north of Kandahar—where no provincial reconstruction teams currently exist. What plans are there to put PRTs in those provinces, bearing in mind that six months ago scoping reports were set out? The Danes, for example, were going to go to Nimruz. However, as far as I know, there are currently no PRTs there and no nations offering to put PRTs there.

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify those gaps, but, of course, he will appreciate that there is a progression across Afghanistan. All that I can say to him is that my hope is that that situation is temporary and that, as we generate greater and better security in the south, we will be able to identify countries that will be willing to deploy those resources into those provinces.

May I ask the Secretary of State to clarify part of his statement? Speaking just among ourselves, when he said that we must be realistic about how many nations have the ability to take on the tasks facing NATO in the south and the east, would he put the greatest emphasis on their lack of military capability or their lack of political will? Which is the biggest deterrent?

Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Romania and the United States have both the capability—in differing measures—and the political will, as the evidence of their presence in their south, where they are carrying out difficult tasks, indicates. I am not in a position—and I am not inclined, in any event—to go through other nations and to categorise them one way or another. We must continue to work with our allies and to encourage them along the road that some of them have made progress along in order to be able, in an appropriate period of time, to do what we have all set out to do in Afghanistan.

Is not one of our problems in Afghanistan the fact that we have conflicting objectives? We seek to support the Government and defeat the Taliban militarily on the one hand, but, on the other, we seek to destroy the poppy crop. May I suggest that we will never get the local political support that we need to defeat the Taliban while we continue to try to destroy what is virtually people’s only source of livelihood? If we lay off the poppies, we might have a little more chance with the Taliban.

I am well aware of the need to balance the two objectives. The fact of the matter is that they are not unconnected. The Taliban and others prey on the population in relation to the production of poppy. Progressively, as we are able to generate the security that allows the economic development that generates alternative livelihoods, we ought to be able to address eradication. That is happening in other parts of Afghanistan, and the sooner we are able to do it in the south and the east, the sooner we will be able to make quick progress.

As I said to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) earlier, I have spoken about this issue from the Dispatch Box on numerous occasions. If the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) would care to read what is recorded in Hansard, he would not need to give me any lessons on the requirement to balance our desire to reduce poppy cultivation in Afghanistan with the need to maintain security and our ability to move forward.

We heard about endemic corruption in the police earlier, but may I ask about the Afghan army, because I do not think that my friend addressed it during his statement? What progress are we making? Is there a problem with retaining Afghan soldiers, and how well equipped are they?

There is a problem with the retention of soldiers in the Afghan army and a challenge regarding equipment. However, my hon. Friend must realise how young the force actually is. For the assessment of the force as it is built up and progresses, I rely on those who know and understand all these things, and they tell me that the Afghan soldiers are enormously brave and capable. Given that the army has been in existence for a comparatively short time, it attracts the admiration of the British forces.

Of course, there are significant challenges. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will applaud the announcement by the United States of America of significant investment for the development of the Afghan security forces. However, that does not mean that there will not be setbacks to the development. As I said earlier, there is a growing realisation throughout the alliance that we will have a better prospect of developing and sustaining the Afghan security forces if we let them grow more organically from the communities with which they are involved, rather than recruiting all the members from the north and thus deploying people in the south who are ethnically different from those whom they are policing, which has been the tendency in the past.

Given the reported incursion of some 700 Taliban fighters over the Pakistan border to attack the Kajaki dam, does the Secretary of State understand the reasons behind President Karzai’s recent statement that Pakistan was effectively operating as a sanctuary for the Taliban with the consent of the Pakistani authorities? If we cannot be assured of the full and active co-operation of Pakistan, will the deployment allow us to raise border security in the Canadian and British zones to the level already achieved in the American sector in the south-east, or will our troops, because of an open border, remain more vulnerable to attack?

If the hon. Gentleman has not visited the border, I am sure that he can contemplate what it looks like: it is a mountainous and rugged part of the world. Given the nature of the challenge, the history of the two countries and the movement of people back and forth over the border, it would be entirely inappropriate to seek assurances. We need the Pakistan Government and the Afghanistan Government to work together, because they have sovereignty on either side of the border, to ensure that there is not this influx of fighters, such as from among the significant number of Afghan refugees who still remain in refugee camps in Pakistan. We cannot wish that away, and we cannot separate the two countries, but NATO and the United Kingdom regularly support the Governments in working together to solve the problem, which will be with them for a significant time. We should never underestimate the contribution that Pakistan’s Government have made. They have lost 700 members of their security forces in seeking to police and control the border. That is not an insignificant contribution, and we should not test their commitment to the issue against the fact that a centuries-old problem has not been solved in a comparatively small number of years.

We entered Afghanistan because it was in the British interest to do so, and I commend my right hon. Friend for having the strength of character to restate the case that we should never again allow the country to become a breeding ground for terrorism. Does he agree that many Members of the House thought that the long-term test for NATO would be how it rose to the challenge of Afghanistan, and although many Members will still give the alliance their unequivocal support, as a result of his statement they will feel that its long-term future is in greater jeopardy?

Most challenges offer opportunities, as well as show weaknesses, and I think that over time NATO will be capable of taking the opportunities that the challenge generates. The fact is that most people who assess the strategic situation that we and the world will be in for the foreseeable future identify the fact that that we will need to be part of an alliance that is capable of doing the sort of work that we are doing in Afghanistan, capable of deploying forces in situations of conflict, and capable of supporting conflict resolution. The developed world—indeed, the world—does not have any alternative but to stand up those capabilities and develop them, as well as the political will to do that work. I am satisfied that, despite the problems faced by me, the UK Government and the alliance, the alliance will, over time, prove to be up to the challenges.

Will the Secretary of State concede that article 5 of the north Atlantic treaty is based on mutual risk? Germany has aspirations to sit on the UN Security Council this week, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, it has defence and foreign policy aspirations in relation to the European Union, too. Is it possible for the Secretary of State to ask the Germans whether they would be good enough to move some of their 3,000 troops in the north down to the south?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct in his shortened definition of article 5, in terms of mutual risk, and I agree with the words that he used. He can rest assured that I have asked the Governments of all the forces in Afghanistan that are capable of being deployed in the south whether they are prepared to deploy them there.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will join me in recognising the role that thousands of servicemen and women play in Afghanistan. They will welcome the extra flexibility that will come from the additional manoeuvre, reconnaissance and surveillance capability that he today announced will be deployed. I welcome the increase of 7 per cent. in the manning requirement of the Marines, but what is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that we can recruit the necessary number of Marines—always acknowledging, of course, that the requirement is at a higher level than it was in 2000, before the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq developed?

My hon. Friend knows that recruitment is increasing. There are two challenges to sustaining the number of forces that we need: we have to recruit, and we have to retain. Retention is as much of a challenge as recruitment, as was implied in the questions asked about operational tempo. There is no question but that the effect of the sustained operational tempo on families and those who support our troops generates part of the challenge, in respect of retention. In addition, sometimes once people have experienced the operational theatres, they are satisfied, in terms of their military career, and are happy to move on, for personal development reasons—and, of course, they are free to do that. What we seek to do, as my hon. Friend knows, is identify particular challenges and deploy enhancements or encouragements in the way in which we remunerate those people so that we can hold on to them, and that is exactly what we are trying to do for the Marines.

The Secretary of State said that the mission was in our national interest, but that is no more or less true for us than it is for our partners. What is definitively in the British national interest is allowing the Army to recover from the overstretch arising from all the missions that it has undertaken in recent years, many of which have not enjoyed enormous public support, to put it mildly, which caused greater anxiety in the Army, as there are difficulties in retention. There are ways of achieving our objectives in Afghanistan other than a military occupation in support of the Government of our choice, so if our international partners are not prepared to help us with our current strategy, will the Secretary of State keep those under review?

This is not a military occupation. It is support for a Government who have been properly elected on a democratic basis. Despite all the criticisms that we may make of some people who serve in that Government and of their past, they are democratically elected. More importantly, NATO, with others, is carrying out the request of the United Nations in a United Nations Security Council resolution, so it is entirely inappropriate to describe it as the hon. Gentleman did. However, on the initial part of his question, I have already recognised that operational tempo generates challenges, and I have spelt out on more than one occasion exactly what we seek to do to address that. May I just tell him that politically his party must make up its mind about where it stands? It cannot have it both ways. The Shadow Chancellor cannot suggest—

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has considered requests to deploy the Gibraltar regiment to Afghanistan to ease the pressure on troops from the UK who have been deployed as a matter of course as a result of the revolving door situation. As he did not mention it in his announcement, will extra personnel be deployed from the medical regiment to ease the situation in Afghanistan, too?

I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend answers to such specific questions, but I will write to him with the particulars that he seeks, and ensure that the letter is placed in the Library of the House for everyone to read. I am advised that members of the Gibraltar regiment have served with distinction in our operational theatres, but I cannot answer the very specific question that he asked because I do not have any recollection of such a request being made.

In answer to an earlier question, the Secretary of State said that although the request was for two battlegroups to be deployed, he is deploying only one. Will he confirm where the other battlegroup is coming from, and what assessment has he made of the risk implications for the deployment, given that we have not been able to employ the two battlegroups that were requested?

This question has been asked before, and I think that the answer was implied in the information that I gave. I repeat that we were asked to provide two battlegroups for the south. We had to balance that request and our assessment of the need against our capacity and the belief that, as it was a NATO mission, others must bear some of the extra burden. Our judgment was that we could send one battlegroup to complement the force enhancements that I announced earlier this month. The request is still in place, as are other unfulfilled parts of the CJSOR—the combined joint statement of requirement—which, in my view, are responsibilities for others to pick up.

Does my right hon. Friend understand the frustration and anger of British defence workers who have no option but to compete for contracts from companies based in NATO countries which, at a time of need, have refused to support our troops?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I always try, particularly when speaking to those who work in our very important defence industries, to understand their frustrations if they express them to me. I am sure that, throughout the country, there is no shortage of them in the state of mind that my hon. Friend suggests.

Some elements of the battlegroup that the right hon. Gentleman announced today were to be deployed to Afghanistan in the normal course of events. My son is a young officer in the 19th Royal Artillery. What extra arms and men will be available in order to hold ground and villages that are taken by the Army, which has not had the necessary resources to maintain its presence there, and what extra resources can be used to win the hearts and minds of people, in Helmand province particularly?

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s son, although I do not know him personally, and to all the others who work with him or are deployed with him—indeed, all our armed forces, who are prepared, as I am sure his son is, to accept the challenge and to carry it out, as he no doubt will, with great distinction, professionalism and courage.

The deployment that I am announcing today is an additional deployment to enhance the ability of ISAF across Regional Command (South) to make progress on what has already been achieved. How those forces are deployed—whether they are deployed to hold ground once it has been secured, or whether operational commanders on the ground take the view that the local politicians and the Afghan forces in those communities are capable of holding that ground once it has been secured—is of course an operational matter, but the hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that this is an extremely complex environment and that, community by community, there are no simple solutions. As we have seen in the north of Helmand in Musa Qala, Sangin, Nawzad and other communities, and indeed in the Kajaki area, it is more likely that a combination of local politics and local security forces will maintain the security that we generate than that we will be able to do it in the long term.